Sunday, 23 June 2024

Lev Tanju

The street style powerhouse dropped out of school, found streetwear fame with Palace and makes FILA sportswear chique

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Forty years ago, Lev Tanju was a baby. Thirty years ago, he liked Lego and TV. Twenty years ago, he divided his time between the skatepark and his grandpa’s steak and lobster restaurant. Ten years ago, he started making big waves with Palace, his streetwear brand with its peculiar infinite triangle logo and baffling string of brilliant brand collaborations.

Today, Lev reinvents that most enviable element of Italian culture: good style. He’s elevating sportswear giant FILA with a luxury line that is so desirable and wearable, you wonder why it didn’t already exist. It’s called FILA+, and Lev Tanju is the boss.

From Fantastic Man n° 38 — 2024
Text by ELIOT HAWORTH
Photography by ALASDAIR McLELLAN
Styling by MAX PEARMAIN

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On an afternoon in January, Lev Tanju walked out of a large building in Paris’s 16th arron­dissement, nodded politely to a security guard and fell silent for a moment. It was a chilly day, with the slushy remnants of a recent snow flurry still coating the ground. He stuffed his hands deep into his jacket pockets and glanced at me sideways before asking, “Do you think that’s what people expected I would do?”

Lev is the 41-year-old creative director of Palace, the hugely successful skate brand and streetwear label. Over the past decade, he has grown the label into one of the most supercharged and authentic forces in fashion, famed for its covetable and clever designs, eclectic cultural references and attention-grabbing collaborations. Just 30 minutes prior, we had both been standing in a brightly lit showroom as Lev talked people through his debut collection as the creative director of FILA+, the new standalone line for the Italian sportswear giant that launches in June and marks his first project outside Palace since co-founding the brand in 2009.

The question threw me, because in the time I’d got to know him, Lev rarely gave the impression of being someone who cares about what other people think. What’s more, his entire modus operandi to date has been one of consistently and joyfully ripping up the rulebook and subverting people’s expectations.

So I told him truthfully that I had no idea how to answer the question.

He seemed satisfied with the response and asked if I wanted to go for lunch.

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Signore Lev Tanju is wearing a Chrome Hearts biker jacket that was previously owned by American action-hero actor Steven Seagal.

I first met Lev in December last year at a social club attached to an Italian church in Clerkenwell, London. The building was old and seemed relatively unchanged since the 1950s: exposed brick and wood panelling on the walls, formica countertops at the bar, toilets with slatted wooden saloon doors and little brass plaques reading “Gentlemen.” A significant proportion of the club’s wall space had been given over to tricolore flags and pendants from Anglo-Italian football supporters’ associations.

Lev was joining from the Palace headquarters, which are located nearby. Before that he’d been resting at home in north London, where he lives with his wife, fashion designer Ashley Williams (Ash for short), and their two dogs, Didi and Stuart.

Apart from the social club’s caretaker and a group of women preparing for a bridal shower on the floor above us, the building was completely empty. Lev produced two bottles of Peroni from the fridge and carried them over to a small wooden table. He sat in a moulded red plastic chair with its back facing a gigantic Italian flag.

Lev is tall, comfortably 6-foot-3, with the languid, welcoming demeanour of a skater. He keeps his head shaved and occasionally wears a pair of delicate wire-framed spectacles. When he speaks, he swears readily, almost joyfully, and often makes effective use of a pair of expressive eyebrows and a hearty, toothy grin that is infectious.

The night before we met, Lev had flown back from a work trip. He took a car straight from the airport, dropped his bags at home and left immediately for the theatre to watch the stage adaptation of Studio Ghibli’s ‘My Neighbour Totoro’. “It was fucking amazing,” he said with a broad smile. “It was my third time seeing it.” Lev has surprising taste in pretty much everything. It isn’t bound by any clear logic or set of values. If he likes it, he likes it. It comes through in the brands he works with, the way his shops are decorated, the things he likes to watch, the music he listens to, the clothes he wears. He is a voracious and instinctive consumer of popular culture and it all gets expressed in an enthusiastic mishmash that dissolves cultural boundaries; it is high and low, logical and weird, all at the same time.

Lev wore a pair of white plastic Birkenstock clogs, lavender sports socks, an RRL jacket, an inside-out R.E.M. T-shirt and a wool beanie in the shape of a strawberry from the 2022 Palace-Gucci collaboration. Wrapped around his waist was an ornate lizard-skin belt detailed with rose and yellow gold, made by Texan silversmith Clint Orms – which he says was insanely expensive but which he ended up buying after fantasising about it for weeks. By his own admission, Lev is a bit of a shopaholic: “I buy so much shit, man. I’m a gnarly consumer.” The belt was holding up a pair of white denim trousers covered in appliqué crucifixes, which were custom-made for his wedding a year and a half ago by cult Los Angeles brand Chrome Hearts. “I met the founder when I was in LA,” Lev said. “I got to know him really well and one day he was giving me a tour of the factory, and I was, like, ‘I’m getting married, can you please make me a pair of these trousers?’ Normally the waiting list is so long to get stuff made from them but he made them for me in, like, two weeks.” Lev and Ash picked up the jeans en route to the service, which took place in a small white chapel in Las Vegas. Lev paired the jeans with a white T-shirt and a cowboy hat.

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In a few hours, Lev was due at the Palace Christmas party. All the Palace staff would be there, as would the Palace skate team, and assorted Palace friends and family. In just under a month he was due to be announced as the creative director of FILA+, but for the time being the news was being kept quiet among a small number of friends and team members, including his business partner and Palace co-founder, Gareth Skewis. “Maybe ten people know,” Lev said.

***

About a year ago, an acquaintance of Lev’s got in touch with him about an opportunity. FILA, the storied Italian sportswear label, wanted to meet with him. “They basically said they were looking for someone to creative-direct this select capsule collection and asked if I would be interested in doing it.” Lev’s response?

“I was, like, ‘Uhhhh, maybe.’” Lev already had a job and wasn’t necessarily looking for a second one. But he went out to meet them anyway. He flew to Biella, the small mill town in the northern Italian region of Piedmont where FILA was founded and where its archives are based. Owing to its location at the confluence of several mountain streams, Biella is a historically significant site for wool processing and, given its small size, the hometown of a surprising number of brands, including Cerruti and Zegna.

After spending the day in the FILA archives and learning more about the backstory of the brand, founded in 1911 by the brothers Ettore and Giansevero Fila, Lev became obsessed with Pierluigi Rolando, the creative director who turned FILA into a globally iconic sportswear brand in the ’70s and ’80s. Prior to this, FILA had best been known as a producer of woollen clothing and underwear and served a market largely limited to the regions around Biella. However, in the late 1960s the company approached Rolando, a young designer who’d just returned to Italy after studying textile engineering in Leeds, England. They hired him to help the company expand into an international sportswear brand as its first-ever creative director.

They started with a tennis collection and through a savvy combination of technical innovation and endorsements by star athletes, their inaugural White Line collection – adorned with the new F-Box logo – was a smash hit, laying the groundwork for much of FILA’s success under Rolando throughout the ’70s and ’80s. Soon they had expanded into everything from mountaineering and basketball to sailing and golf, their clothes often inextricably linked to star athletes: Björn Borg for tennis, Reinhold Messner for mountaineering, Grant Hill for basketball, Ingemar Stenmark for skiing.

Outside his role at FILA, Rolando had a rich interior life. In his spare time he made sculptures: architectural models of fictionalised cityscapes made from scrap metal and fabric offcuts; giant ceramic hands and heads; life-sized figures of heroes from Arthurian legend. Lev had previously been unaware of the designer – although he knew about the cultural boom that he had presided over – and immediately embraced him as a sort of unsung genius. “He invented so much amazing stuff,” Lev said. “They were using all these modern techniques and fabrics. Making all this mountaineering gear, using all these weird wools.”

Most importantly, Lev got a good vibe from his trip. “Every single person I met was just really nice. So Italian. I honestly wasn’t expecting anything and I wasn’t really looking for a second job or anything. But I just instantly thought, ‘Fuck, I love the heritage and the story.’” They chatted again after his archive visit. Lev’s response that time: “Yeah, let’s do it.”

At some point in the discussions, Lev also went to Korea to meet with Gene Yoon, the global chairman of FILA. Mr. Yoon began his career at JCPenney before working in sales for Hwaseung and eventually the Korean subsidiary of FILA. In one of the more outlandish stories of modern fashion business, Mr. Yoon grew FILA Korea to such a size that it was eventually able to purchase its then-­struggling parent company, acquiring the entire global business through a leveraged buyout in 2007. “He’s a legend,” said Lev. “I played some golf with him in Korea. He’s in his seventies and he absolutely whooped my arse.” By his own admission Lev isn’t very good at golf, but he enjoys it. Although he only recently started playing, he bought his first clubs many years ago when he was effectively broke but – in what seems to be typical Lev fashion – had managed to come into some fast cash.

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He and a friend named Edson had acquired some paintings by a street artist called Adam Neate, who was going through a mini spike in the market. Lev had two, Edson had one, and together they sold them on eBay as a trio for £15,000 after inciting a bidding war between two prospective buyers. “We ended up getting a train to Richmond and meeting this guy in a car park near Twickenham. He counted out 15 grand in cash,” Lev said. “I gave Edson five and I kept ten. I’d never had so much money.” Lev used part of the cash to buy a high-end set of golf clubs, which sat largely unused. With the rest he bought an electric piano, a £2,000 guitar, a huge television, and a cowboy hat, and he took his friends out for dinner at fancy restaurants until the money ran out in what he describes, proudly, as his first-ever spending spree.

Lev will hold his two positions as creative director of Palace and creative director of FILA+ simultaneously, and although he’s clear that nothing in his role at Palace will change, it still marks a significant new chapter for him, as well as a big shift in his working practice – one that he has been taking seriously.

He told me that since taking on his role at FILA+ he has been more involved in Palace than ever, and despite now having two jobs, he somehow feels more productive and more driven. He’s started getting up earlier, drinking less and delegating more. “So much comes out of my brain now.”

Still, even time-efficient multitaskers need some rest. A few days after the office party, he and Ash would be going to Barbados for a winter break. “I’ve got stuff to do but I’ll be able to chill as well. Go swimming or something like that. Take some books, try and read them.” On his reading list: a book on the art of simplifying your life, given to him by a precocious niece, and a biography of Geronimo, the 19th-century Ndendahe Apache military leader.

***

Levent James Tanju was born in Croydon, south London, to an English mother named Angela and a Turkish father named Nejdet. Growing up, he went to school in Clapham and spent a lot of time in Battersea, in the southwest of the city, where his family owned a restaurant named Jack’s Place. The restaurant was founded by Lev’s maternal grandfather, a former debt collector and “pound­-a­-round” boxer named Jack Talkington. Jack used to fight under the name Jack King and, according to Lev, spent much of his youth flirting with the wrong side of the law. But when Jack met Lev’s grandmother, he concluded that the London underworld was not for him. “He just decided, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t want to be sketchy,’” Lev said.

With the money he’d saved up from his fights, Jack opened a restaurant serving French-English fare specialising in lobsters and steaks. It was relatively forward-thinking for the notoriously bleak landscape of British dining, and throughout the ’70s and ’80s it became a hangout for celebrities. Lev has photos of himself as a child standing outside the restaurant with pop duo Bros and boxer Frank Bruno. Jack Nicholson once came in for a meal and got along well with Lev’s mum.

“It was a scene, man, that restaurant,” Lev said. “It was ram-packed every night. I worked there a lot, behind the bar with my dad, my nan, my auntie, everyone. All family. It was a crazy place.”

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True to his name, Jack Talkington was a gifted storyteller and ebullient host. He also had a thing for practical jokes, most noto­riously his party trick of sneaking up behind anyone hapless enough to come to the restaurant in formal wear and snipping off their tie with a pair of butcher’s scissors. By the time Lev was a kid, the walls were covered with thousands of ties harvested from the necks of unsuspecting businessmen, along with an assortment of other souvenirs and memorabilia. A photo of the restaurant from the early ’00s shows nearly every available surface covered with some kind of trinket, keepsake or trophy.

The family sold Jack’s Place in 2015, following the passing of Lev’s grandparents. When the restaurant closed, Lev was in the process of opening the first Palace store on Brewer Street in Soho, and he took some of the wall decorations with him. A Rolls Royce grille, given to his grandfather by staff from the factory who would come in for lunch, and a life-size portrait of Queen Elizabeth II are still in the shop.

***

Lev started skating late. He was 17 years old when a friend from school named Charlie Towler got a board. It looked like fun, so he saved up his earnings from the family restaurant before going to a skate shop called Fly on the King’s Road. He bought a board, got hooked, failed most of his GCSEs, quit school and never looked back. It was only a matter of time before he ended up at the Southbank Centre, the large brutalist complex on the southern side of the Thames that also serves as the spiritual home of skateboarding in London. It was here that Lev found his people: fellow skaters with whom he could spend all day hanging out, sometimes skating, sometimes doing nothing. Soon he had moved in with them in a large flophouse on Lower Marsh in Waterloo, just a few minutes from the Southbank. The house eventually became known – both affectionately and ironically – as the Palace; along with the Brixton Palace in south London and the Ice Palace in east London, it formed a trifecta of skate houses defined by cheap rent and a rolling cast of tenants and friends crashing on the sofa.

Lev was habitually broke, but he had an entrepreneurial spirit. He worked at “every skate shop in London” and on the side started selling spare boards given to him by friends with professional contracts. He and the other Palace residents also ran an informal rent-­a-crowd service for shoots and events happening in the city. “Sugababes videos, body doubles for a Busted shoot, fashion week parties,” Lev said. “These production people had us on speed dial because they knew we wouldn’t be doing anything and we needed the money.” Every Thursday they would skate over to the other side of the river and fill up on free drinks at gallery openings in town.

***

One day in January, when the sun was out and the wind was blowing, Lev took me on a walk through his old neighbourhood, tracing the route from the river to his former house on Lower Marsh that he’d skated thousands of times. We walked at a steady clip, with Lev providing a running commentary of our surroundings as we went.

“This pavement is wider than it used to be.”

“We used to steal packets of ketchup from that McDonald’s.”

“Dog in a bag, nice.”

The Palace is still standing today, but it’s been heavily renovated. It sits above a retail unit that used to be bargain bakery outlet Greggs and is now a branch of the blandly tasteful chain restaurant Pizza Pilgrims. The facade of the building looks clean, the glazing recently installed. As we stood outside, a woman appeared at one of the windows. “That’s my old bedroom!” Lev said. “I bet you she’s not paying £180 a month.”

The relative financial freedom afforded by the Palace, along with the openness of the Southbank and its community, created an environment in which he and his friends could live largely as they saw fit. This generally meant skateboarding most of the day and experimenting with financially risky ventures, like starting your own label. For a while, Lev had been thinking about launching his own thing. He knew he wasn’t going to make it as a skateboarder, and he wanted to find a way to celebrate and support his friends, as well as creating something that would reflect the world that was taking shape around him: a scene fuelled both by a distinct London identity and by the cultural promiscuity of the internet.

He and his friends had started riding under the name the Palace Wayward Boys Choir (or the PWBC), christened by Lev’s best friend, Stuart Hammond, who now works alongside Lev in the Palace marketing team.

It felt exciting and irreverent, giving them the licence to further expand their world. They started DJing under the PWBC moniker and Lev launched a weekly online video series called PWBC News that displayed his now trademark skill of drawing together disparate and seemingly random cultural references and chopping them up into something fresh and coherent. In a short space of time, they had PWBC tattoos done; Lev’s is on his left bicep. “That’s the founding moment of what became Palace,” Lev said. “Someone put a name to what we were doing, and all of a sudden it became something.”

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In 2009, Lev contacted Gareth Skewis, a fellow skateboarder and co-owner of legendary London skate shop Slam City Skates, and together with a third investor, Marshall Taylor, the three launched Palace. Lev and Gareth eventually bought out Marshall and now co-own the business. Lev handles the creative direction and marketing, while Gareth handles the business structure. From the very outset, Palace was defined by its incredibly open sensibility about what skate culture could be. When Lev first got into skateboarding, the British scene was both shunned by the wider culture and somewhat indifferent to the world outside its narrow scene. “Skateboarding was not cool. You had ripped shoes on. You got no girls when you went to college. We were behind California.

It wasn’t accepted in England. It was an outcast, weird thing to do,” he said.

Where most skate brands provided the aesthetically unexciting staples of jeans, plaid shirts and beanie hats, for what Lev calls “grungers” or “emo kids,” Lev and his friends had long since started to wear football shirts, or track pants along with Comme des Garçons shirts and loafers. This was reflected in the collections that Palace started making. “All this stuff I was secretly into and my friends were into, it was, like, ‘This is what I love, so fuck everyone else. I’m not going to dress like a ’90s skater any more.’”

When Lev started making his own skate videos, he would cut the footage to grime, house music or ‘West End Girls’. “Nobody was doing that then,” he told me. The grainy footage (born out of necessity since he was only able to afford Motorola camera phones and cheap VHS recorders) stuck out from the otherwise dominant use of HD cameras in skateboarding and defined a key mood for Palace: the sense of being nostalgic yet completely contemporary.

The brand was also defined by a disarming level of openness that lent it an instant air of authenticity in a landscape where fashion labels often attempt to make themselves desirable through a sense of exclusivity and unknowability. This shines through in everything Palace do, from the decision to include skaters – and Lev – in their campaigns to the irreverent, surreal product descriptions in their web shop. The latter are written entirely by Lev in all caps, in staccato bullet points that range from the dry to the bizarre, with an often surprising level of pathos. They offer Lev’s stream-of-consciousness thoughts on everything from what he’s had for lunch to his love for Rod Stewart, or reflections on the grind of having to write so many product descriptions.

On a recent scroll through the website, a pair of green jogging bottoms were described with the caption “old people love paprika” while a black quilted jacket was accompanied by “I’m from Croydon and I’m 41, I was raised on Patrick Cox shoes and sketchy shit tracksuits.” Given the amount of product that Palace release, Lev has crafted thousands of these mini poems, and in 2022 they were released in a hardback anthology by Phaidon.

***

A lot has been written about how Palace brought things like football and house music into a skate culture that was otherwise closed-off and judgemental of scenes outside itself. However, these observations miss the point that Palace also took skate culture into these other spaces. The exchange was never simply one-way. Skaters were no longer outcasts; they could be cool. People who had never been on a skateboard could wear Palace, and that was fine too.

One key to their success and cultural spread has been their prolific track record with collaborations, which often propel them far beyond the universe of skateboarding and streetwear and allow other brands to tap into their dedicated following. Their earliest team-ups came out of necessity: “Consumerism is so fast and so fierce now that everyone’s trying to get some other messaging across or reinvent themselves or be at the top of the newsfeed.” Lev said. “But honestly, we started doing it because we couldn’t make the things we wanted to. We wanted to make a trainer but didn’t know how, so we contacted Reebok. We wanted to make a football shirt so we contacted Umbro.”

With each collaboration, Lev seems particularly adept at identifying both the cultural significance of a brand and its manufacturing capabilities. When they wanted to make great loafers, they worked with Gucci. Jeans and underpants, Calvin Klein. Technical outerwear, C.P. Company. Preppy Americana, Polo Ralph Lauren. Lumpy but immensely popular plastic clogs, Crocs. They would never have been able to make elite-level tennis gear on their own, so instead they did it with Adidas – in 2018 Angelique Kerber won the Wimbledon women’s singles while wearing Adidas Palace tennis whites, in a stunt that is still widely regarded as one of the smartest and most impactful pieces of fashion marketing in recent memory.

So much of what Palace, and Lev, have done is now simply part of the grammar of how brands interact with one another and increasingly do so across industry divisions that once seemed firmly established and insurmountable. Lev says his secret, rather than being a ruthless negotiator, is simply being enthusiastic, organised, open and nice to work with. As well as knowing when to say no on occasion.

***

I wanted to know how Lev’s approach to FILA+ would differ from what he does at Palace. Would it be possible to remove the voice of the brand he founded, if his voice is so tied up in what that brand is? He thought for a moment and told me that while it is true there is so much of him in Palace, it would also be a mistake to conflate him with the brand and vice versa. Palace is Lev, but it is also the many friends who have made it with him. A chorus of voices rather than one.

On the various occasions I met Lev, it was striking how often he would mention someone from his formative years – people he used to skate with, live with, his closest friends – and then add shortly afterwards, almost casually, that they work for Palace now. As designers, as business partners, as skaters, as marketers, as general creative counsel. It is sweet, and it speaks to the way in which the brand has grown organically around a constellation of friends. “Everyone’s DNA is involved in that company,” Lev said. “There’s a million different opinions. It’s amazing working with my friends, and these people are my family, but FILA is very different, and it’s fun to do other stuff as well sometimes.”

With FILA, Lev is operating from inside the company, not as an external collaborator, and the process requires him to clearly define his own perspective while simultaneously removing himself from the equation. “It’s more grounded in their history,” he said. “It’s a bigger story than me. I’m trying to be a bit more pure about what I think FILA stands for, and I’m trying to think about what should be in their archive 20 years from now, so that someone will feel like I did looking at what Pierluigi Rolando created.” Lev is working largely with FILA’s design teams, rather than bringing in people from his Palace setup.

The one exception is Ben Drury, the graphic designer and former art director of Mo’ Wax records, who works on graphics for Palace and has been helping on the debut collection. Like many things with Lev, it is a mixture of responding to the realities of a given situation both practically and intuitively. “It’s partly because all the offices are in Milan, but also I see it as necessary for this to have a completely different feel and vision,” he explained.

FILA are hoping that Lev’s involvement can help them re-establish themselves in a cultural space that they have been pursuing for years, if not decades. There have been some recent efforts, most notably a string of largely one-off runway collaborations with a rotating cast of designers (Liam Hodges, Y/Project, Haider Ackermann), but the endeavours have yet to push them into the sphere of relevance they are clearly seeking.

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For Lev, over the course of our meetings, I got the sense that, for all the success of Palace, it was still genuinely significant and inspiring for him to have been approached by such a large and historic label, and to be contacted not through his business venture but as an individual.

Lev’s FILA+ appointment was officially announced on 12 January 2024 in a short piece on Vogue Business. News reports and speculation soon followed. “Palace founder Lev Tanju just bagged a creative director role in Milan,” read a headline on Dazed. “Can Palace’s Lev Tanju make FILA cool again?” asked Highsnobiety. A bulletin on The Business of Fashion noted that FILA had “reported revenue of $163.44 million in its most recent quarter, down 35 per cent year-on-year, citing challenging conditions in the key North America market and high inventory levels.”

A FILA+ Instagram account launched the same day, featuring a promotional video that bore some of Lev’s trademarks. In the video two men chisel away at a large block of stone in a hangar-like workshop while clips from old FILA campaigns play on a dated TV monitor. An angelic choir harmonises over steadily rising music as the camera pans up to reveal a large F-Box logo carved from white, green and red marble and a deep-voiced narrator exclaims: “All new, all improved. FILA+. The best F in sportswear.” Say the last part fast in a London accent to get the joke.

On the day of the buyer’s showroom just over a week later, Lev wore a full look from the collection (a dark-blue zip-up tracksuit top, pink trousers and a pair of plimsolls) and talked people through rails. Models dressed in FILA+ circulated like polite nephews on hosting duty at a family party.
The collection was larger than I was expecting. It felt substantial, reference-heavy and generous. There was lots of luxe terry and jerseys. The odd puffer. Knitted long-sleeved tops in the claret and blue of West Ham United and the violet of ACF Fiorentina, two football teams that FILA produced the kits for in the 1990s. Displayed in the centre of the room on top of a large pool table was a selection of shoes, including a pair of black velcro boots that Lev described as “like if Naf Naf made the army uniforms.”

While it featured the occasional graphic, the collection was led more by fabrics and shapes than by branding and bells and whistles. The overall mood was distinctly formal, but also fun: shirting, handmade ties from Como decorated with love-heart FILA motifs, pairs of clever, single-pleated tracksuit bottoms that looked for all the world like dress trousers.

***

Later that afternoon, as we looked for a place to eat, Lev told me that he had wanted the collection to have a level of quality and refinement that reflected its positioning as an elevated offering. The day before we met, a large Parisian fashion house had shown a collection that included a selection of tracksuits covered with logos. Lev hated it, finding it borderline disrespectful. “I don’t like it when people make customers pay super high prices for something that looks trashy on purpose,” he said.

He was wrapped up against the weather in an impressive black leather Chrome Hearts jacket that once belonged to the actor Steven Seagal. Ash had bought it for him as a surprise birthday present after he’d discovered the garment on one of his late-night Grailed trawls. He described it as probably the best present he’s ever received. Being a connoisseur of good product descriptions, he still keeps the caption for the original listing saved on his phone: “Vintage Chrome Hearts jacket from the ’90s, worn and owned by Steven Seagal. Fits like a large/XL. Extremely rare and quality shows. Weighs nearly 30 pounds. Only for sexy ballers.”

***

In a restaurant frequented by well-to-do families and businessmen in gilets and chinos, Lev explained that the ties in the collection had come from him wanting to make something that CEO Gene Yoon would want to wear to the office. “I really wanted him to have something,” he said. “Or the FILA accountants. I like the idea of the accountants being able to wear the collection. You know what I mean? If you’re an accountant at a sportswear brand, you still wear ties to meetings, so why not have a FILA one?” It felt like a classic Lev move, filled with humour, cultural reference, a genuine love for quality products and clever marketing. When Mr. Yoon was in Paris, Lev sent him a tie, along with a bouquet of flowers, and he turned up to the showroom early that morning wearing it.

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The rich breadth of references in the collection reflects what Lev most enjoys about the particular era of Italian style that Pierluigi Rolando was operating in. “I’m infatuated by this moment where sportswear was coming into Italian style culture,” he said. “FILA, Stone Island, the paninari, all this stuff. They would take all of that, as well as other things like formal wear or cowboy boots, and run it all together. Suddenly there was this amalgamation of sportswear with all these other things, sometimes weird things. Italian people have the best fucking style, even the bad ones.”

At the time he asked it, I took Lev’s question outside the FILA+ showroom as a reflection of his desire to extricate this project and his personal voice from what he has created at Palace. The formality and his lean into preppy Italianissimo can be read as a pre-emptive and bold move against anyone who might try to predict what Lev’s work at FILA would look like based on his existing body of work. He’d already mentioned that well-meaning people who had not yet seen the collection were sending him pictures of classic FILA hip-hop references and asking him to re-release their favourite basketball shoes from the ’90s. With those more expected references in mind, the collection Lev has produced feels confident and gives the impression of someone only following their own instincts.

With the appointment now officially announced, Lev seemed pleased to be able to talk openly after months of keeping things close to his chest. It was a moment to take stock of something that is a big deal, not least for someone who started out with a bag of skateboards in a wrecked house in Waterloo. A few days before the news went public, Lev took the time to tell everyone at Palace directly. “It’s been a long build-up to it and I wanted to do it properly,” he said. “I got a lot of responses from people. I think they’re happy, maybe even proud, actually. Because it’s kind of mental, all this. For so many of my friends who I’ve known from skating, who’ve seen me do everything off my own back, I guess it makes me look kind of official.”

CONTRIBUTIONS

Photographic assistance by Lex Kembery, Simon Mackinlay and Jess Pearson. Styling assistance by Emma Simmonds. Make-up by Bea Sweet. Production by Partner Films.